A demographer informed by ethnography
UCLA demographer Victor Agadjanian. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

A demographer informed by ethnography

Victor Agadjanian's demographic research has taken him all over the world and inspired him to become multilingual.

“You have to understand where people are coming from, what kinds of constraints they face — in terms of social and economic conditions, family environment, cultural beliefs and practices.”

UCLA International Institute, March 23, 2020Victor Agadjanian, who previously taught at Arizona State University and the University of Kansas, joined UCLA in fall 2018 with a joint appointment in the department of sociology and the UCLA International Institute.

Over the course of his distinguished career, the scholar has led, co-led and participated in numerous demographic and multidisciplinary social science research studies, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and post-Soviet Eurasia. His work has focused on HIV risk and prevention; issues of marriage, fertility, religion and ethnicity; and the health, family, socioeconomic and psychosocial impacts of labor migration.

Finding new inspiration at UCLA

“At my career stage, you would think that I would be settling down. But no,” says Agadjanian, “I cannot even dare to think about that, there are so many things that interest me.”

“UCLA has been very rejuvenating,” he adds. “I feel in some sense that I am re-starting my career. So many people at UCLA do such excellent, exciting work in almost any of the areas where I could see myself engaged,” he explains.

“Migration is a big area of study here, as is health. Many UCLA researchers are also doing very interesting work on family-related matters, ethnicity and religion, which are very important to me.

“Last but not least, there is a great deal of interest in Armenian studies here,” he continues, “reflecting both the presence of the local Armenian community and a strong tradition of multidisciplinary research on Armenia, Armenian heritage and culture, language, history, etc.”

In fact, barely a year after Agadjanian joined UCLA, the International Institute received a $20 million gift from the estate of Kirk Kerkorian to establish The Promise Armenian Institute, whose operations are getting off the ground in 2020.

And then there is the UCLA student body. “I am very impressed with the intellectual quality and eagerness of UCLA students,” he says. “They are demanding in a good way — they keep me very, very busy. And that’s stimulating, too. I am benefiting from our class discussions, as hopefully they are.”

In addition to working on multiple research projects, the scholar currently teaches graduate sociology courses and undergraduate courses for two of the International Institute’s academic minor programs: global health and international migration studies.

Agadjanian (far right) with collaborators in Mozambique. (Photo provided by Prof. Agadjanian.)

An adventurous start to a long research career

A prodigious scholar, Agadjanian is a social demographer — someone who looks at the social issues that affect populations’ structure, composition, health and well-being. His voluminous record of publications, often based on longitudinal studies, is testimony to his longstanding interest in the wide variety of these issues.

His initial exposure to the crucial importance of the social aspects of human well-being was in Africa, where he did two stints as a Portuguese-Russian interpreter for Soviet medical missions in the 1980s. He worked in Angola while still an undergraduate and later in Mozambique, during an almost two-year break between his undergraduate and graduate studies.

In the wake of the 1974 democratic revolution in Portugal and the latter’s subsequent rapid withdrawal from its African colonies, Portuguese-speaking Africa opened to Soviet influence. Demand for Portuguese-Russian interpreters grew in the USSR, giving the young African Studies undergraduate student a chance to experience life in Africa first-hand. (He had been studying both Swahili and Portuguese in an African Studies program at the Institute of Asia and Africa of Moscow State University.)

“Just being in Africa, being involved with medical practitioners and always around medical facilities, exposed me greatly to the social aspects of medicine,” says Agadjanian. As medical practices in African countries also included traditional medicine, his curiosity as a researcher prompted him to take a witch doctor course while in Mozambique. He completed the course in about a year and received a certificate.

“The core of the profession are people who have spirits, usually of their ancestors, and use them for diagnosis and treatment,” he explains. “I did not have such spirits, so I was essentially trained as an herbalist.”

Says Agadjanian of his witch doctor training, “It was part of my exploration of a social world, an effort to understand how things worked there, of the dynamics of everyday life and health-seeking in the community.” The experience gave him deep insights into the array of challenges and constraints that people in Mozambique had to juggle on a daily basis, all of which influenced their decisions on health care.

“When I am in Mozambique and tell people that I am a witch doctor, many ask for help in resolving their problems. Sometimes it has to do with a child, sometimes it is a behavioral or social problem, some people complain that they do not have luck in their business or their marriage, for instance,” he elaborated.

“Of course, I have not been able to help them — I don’t really practice my skills — but at least it gives me an understanding of why people would consult a witch doctor and how they make that decision,” he continues.

And, contrary to what one might assume, Agadjanian says that most people in Mozambique consult a witch doctor only as a last resort because it is very expensive — typically after they have first tried a biomedical clinic or a prayer cycle at their local Pentecostal church.

Left: Agadjanian being ordained as a n'anga (traditional healer) during a ceremony in Mozambique.
Right: With his bava (teacher) some 25 years later. (Photos provided by Prof. Agadjanian.)

Using ethnographic insights to illuminate demographic data

After his second stint in Africa, Agadjanian returned to Moscow and began a Ph.D. program at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology (of the then USSR, now Russian, Academy of Sciences) in Moscow. But two years later he moved to Los Angeles and switched fields, earning a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Southern California. It was there that he discovered demography was his true calling. But in his case, demographic research continues to be informed by his ethnographic roots.

“I obviously don’t now consider myself an ethnographer, but it's a very important part of how I see the world and the type of research I do,” he remarks.

“I've come to believe that the two disciplines, demography and ethnography, are not as incompatible, or even as different, as they may sometimes appear. Not everyone would agree with me,” he says, “but for me, both fields share this organic interaction between theoretical and empirical experiences.

“Your experience with numbers, if you're talking about demography, or the people from whom those numbers come, if you’re using an ethnographic lens, are both very important in shaping your thinking,” he remarks. “They challenge your assumptions, making you adjust them and, hopefully, refine and enrich your understanding.

“It’s that inductive process that I like about both ethnography and demography,” he continues. “To the extent possible, I try to combine both. Whenever I do a standardized demographic survey, for instance, I want the numbers complemented with some semi-structured ethnographic interviews.

“Occasionally I do those interviews myself. It’s a lot of fun — I cannot deny that!” he says. Being a natural linguist certainly makes such ethnographic interviews easier, if not a natural extension of his scholarly curiosity.

Growing up in a Russian-speaking Armenian household in Moscow, Agadjanian became fluent in French while in primary and secondary school. He acquired Swahili and Portuguese, as well as English, as an undergrad, and has since added fluent Spanish, conversational Tsonga and Uzbek and basic German and Italian to his repertoire. Not to mention Armenian, which he worked hard to perfect as an adult.

“Language is very important to me and I make sure that I invest as much time as I can in it when I go to a new place,” explains the UCLA professor. “Knowing the language and having sufficient proficiency to be able to converse with people is for me a precondition for effective interaction.”

Recurring focus on HIV and labor migration research

Agadjanian has spent many years studying the social factors that contribute to and shape knowledge about and the risks of HIV, as well as corresponding preventive behavior, in Africa, Russia and Central Asia.

“I seek to connect HIV with multiple other concerns that people face,” he says. “You have to understand where people are coming from, what kinds of constraints they face — in terms of social and economic conditions, family environment, cultural beliefs and practices.”

“These constraints can be important barriers to or facilitators of health behavior. You really have to invest in understanding all of that beyond a simple, narrowly focused biomedical intervention,” he remarks.

In keeping with that perspective, Agadjanian has gone on to advise the NIH on the importance of the behavioral and social science aspects of HIV/AIDS research as the chair or co-chair of committees created by that body to guide it in identifying research priorities.

In addition to HIV/AIDS, the effects of labor migration on family processes, health and economic well-being has been a prominent focus of his research for the past two decades in a range of countries, including Mozambique, Angola, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

Although those studies have often included an HIV component, Agadjanian has increasingly examined how labor migration — typically defined by the physical separation of spouses — affects marriages, spousal relationships, women’s status and the children who stay behind. With women increasingly participating in labor migration, moreover, the societal impact of migration has shifted yet again.

“In most places where I work,” he explains, “I am looking at migration from the sending community's perspective: what triggers migration and what happens to those who are left behind.” In Russia, however, he has done a number of studies that investigate HIV prevention, sexual and reproductive health and the experience of exclusion and discrimination among female immigrants from Central Asia.

Interviewer training in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Photo provided by Prof. Agadjanian.)

“In migration, discussions often emphasize the choices people typically make as being bad versus good,” he shares. “In reality, however it’s often a choice between bad (for example, employment as a domestic servant), and worse, such as staying and working on a farm that no longer produces anything due to climatic changes, droughts or floods.”

Understanding the choices facing migrants is another reason why Agadjanian makes it a point to speak to people directly about their lives whenever he is in the field. “It is an important, refreshing reminder of things that really matter and how these things happen in everyday life,” he continues. “You always learn from people. When you get a taste of reality, it is always something new and different — you expand your understanding.”

One major NIH-funded study in which the scholar is currently involved (as a co-investigator) examines how the migration of adult family members affects children who stay behind in Nepal, Mozambique and Mexico. “The project looks at children at a very early age (preschool), school age and children who are transitioning to adulthood,” he explains.

Agadjanian is strongly committed to rigorous empirical research. “In this day and age,” he reflects, “I feel that the value of academic scholarship not only continues, but increases, in importance. It supplies the expertise and evidence that we desperately need these days, when we are so quick to make judgments for ideological reasons that are often completely baseless.

“I see my mission, and our mission as scholars, as doing research that will help the world change for the better. And to stay true to that mission we have to generate robust evidence-based knowledge and contribute to solutions based on what we find in our work,” he concludes.

Published: Monday, March 23, 2020